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March 16, 2009

Ex-Midtown Bookclub: Late Nights on Air


Late Nights On Air

-- Elizabeth Hay

From the Publisher:
The eagerly anticipated novel from the bestselling author of A Student of Weather and Garbo Laughs.

Harry Boyd, a hard-bitten refugee from failure in Toronto television, has returned to a small radio station in the Canadian North. There, in Yellowknife, in the summer of 1975, he falls in love with a voice on air, though the real woman, Dido Paris, is both a surprise and even more than he imagined.

Dido and Harry are part of the cast of eccentric, utterly loveable characters, all transplants from elsewhere, who form an unlikely group at the station. Their loves and longings, their rivalries and entanglements, the stories of their pasts and what brought each of them to the North, form the centre. One summer, on a canoe trip four of them make into the Arctic wilderness (following in the steps of the legendary Englishman John Hornby, who, along with his small party, starved to death in the barrens in 1927), they find the balance of love shifting, much as the balance of power in the North is being changed by the proposed Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, which threatens to displace Native people from their land.


On the whole, our group did not love this book, though a couple of people did. They felt strongly that it was missing a plot, and that the canoe trip, in failing to involve the some of the main characters in the novel, was an inadequate climax to the book. They also felt many of the characters failed to exhibit any real emotional growth, and that far too many more interesting stories were left unresolved in favor of an big finish that didn't seem to tie into the remainder of the book at all.

There was also a great deal of discussion about how much the perspective offered in the book was limited to a white outsider's view of things, and whether it was a deliberate, self-aware choice, or merely a result of the author's limited vision.

There was also a lot of confusion on basic plot points like who was sleeping with who, that might have been a deliberate effort on the part of Hay, but in the reading, it was less a tantalizing mystery and more an inability to keep track of what we were supposed to being tantalized by in this chapter.

April 1, 2009

Midtown Bookclub: Divisadero


Divisadero

by Michael Ondaatje

From the Publisher:
In the 1970s in northern California, near Gold Rush country, a father and his teenage daughters, Anna and Claire, work their farm with the help of Coop, an enigmatic young man who makes his home with them. Theirs is a makeshift family, until it is riven by an incident of violence — of both hand and heart — that sets fire to the rest of their lives.

Divisadero takes us from the city of San Francisco to the raucous backrooms of Nevada’s casinos, and eventually to the landscape of south central France. It is here, outside a small rural village, that Anna becomes immersed in the life and the world of a writer from an earlier time — Lucien Segura. His compelling story, which has its beginnings at the turn of the century, circles around “the raw truth” of Anna’s own life, the one she’s left behind but can never truly leave. And as the narrative moves back and forth in time and place, we discover each of the characters managing to find some foothold in a present rough-hewn from the past.

Breathtakingly evoked and with unforgettable characters, Divisadero is a multi-layered novel about passion, loss, and the unshakable past, about the often discordant demands of family, love, and memory. It is Michael Ondaatje’s most intimate and beautiful novel to date.


Because I disliked thinking about this book so very, very much, I didn't want to take the time to create my own questions about it, and I ended up simply using the somewhat repetitive ones from Random House's Divisadero Reading Guide. That said, I didn't hate reading it -- Ondaatje does have a way of putting sentences together that makes me enjoy the process of reading it -- but when I got to the end, I could barely remember the beginning. Nothing about the plot or characters was compelling or memorable, and it would be hard to have a 2 hour discussion about the flow of language.

That seemed to form the consensus opinion at the club -- some people loved and others didn't love the actual language used -- but in general, people thought the story felt incomplete, and more like a series of vignettes than an actual novel.

We debated a bit whether the quasi-incestuous angle on Anna & Coop's relationship is what drove her father to his particularly strong reaction. We also talked about the impracticalities of the early story, and of a single father with a farm to run also raising two infants with no apparent help other than a 4 year old.

It also lead to a discussion on why so many novels that we've read and found seriously flawed have ended up winning big awards -- is it politics or reputation or what?

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